Who Belongs in our Math Classrooms?

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation.  For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may have not felt welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academics may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense –– or perhaps it used to make sense when it was whole numbers and counting, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. They may have been demoralized by a standardized test score that deemed them below grade level. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math.” For still other students, they love the subject, but must contend with people who do not see them as fitting their ideas of a person who is good at math. They have to combat stereotypes to be seen as legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations by holding forth with their smartness even as others look on in dismay.

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

Why Belongingness Matters
When I go and observe in mathematics classrooms, I can usually ascertain students’ general sense of belongingness. What is their affect as they walk through the door? How warmly and personally do they greet the teacher and each other? Are they represented –– through math work or other means –– on what is posted on the walls?
All too often, I see students enter their math classrooms with a sense of gloom. Smiles disappear as they cross the threshold of the doorway. Their posture slumps. They sit at the back of the room or put their heads on their desks.They may even groan or launch into a litany of complaints. When I observe these student behaviors as a teacher, it signals that I have work to do to make children feel more welcomed and excited about spending their time with me learning mathematics.

Teachers’ relationships with students are an important source of of belongingness, but peers are equally (if not more) important. Even if a teacher welcomes each student with a smile and takes an interest in who they are, frequent insults or intimidation from other students can create a negative classroom climate. To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

During adolescence, children face the enormous task of developing a strong and stable sense of themselves. Although this identity development happens over the course of a lifetime, adolescence is distinct because it is when children are first able to think abstractly enough to grapple with both their own emerging self-understandings as well as how society views them. This leads to both a delightful self-awareness as well as a sometimes painful sense of self-consciousness for many students, as they are more sensitive to others’ perspectives and feedback. Necessarily, then, inclusive and inviting classrooms provide a place for this crucial developmental work, particularly in relationship to school in general and mathematics in particular.

What Gets in the Way of Belongingness
Although I generally avoid absolutes when it comes to describing good teaching, I will highlight a few common instructional practices that feed a negative classroom climate, thus working against belongingness. First, many math classrooms emphasize competition. Whether this comes from formal races, timed tests, or just students’ constant comparison of grades, competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others. This is problematic because there is typically one kind of smartness that leads students to “win” these competitions: quick and accurate calculation. To paraphrase mathematician John Allen Paulos, nobody tells you that you cannot be a writer because you are not a fast typist; yet we regularly communicate to students that they cannot be mathematicians because they do not compute quickly. While a competitive dynamic may be at play in other school subjects, it is especially toxic in math classrooms because students do not have other venues to explore and affirm their diverse mathematical talents.

Another contributor to negative classroom climate comes from devaluing who students are. This may come in many forms, some of which teachers may not realize. For instance, some teachers avoid using what is for them an unfamiliar (thus difficult-to-pronounce) name. Not only does this lead to fewer invitations to participate, it communicates to students that we are not comfortable with something that might make them different than us. Names are deeply personal, one of the first words students identify with: They often reflect home cultures and personal history. When teachers avoid them or change them without consent, they devalue something of who students are.

Likewise, when teachers problematically differentiate their treatment of students based on cultural styles, they can devalue who students are. For instance, educational researcher Ebony McGee studies successful students of color in STEM fields. She interviewed a Black chemistry major at a primarily White institution who reported that a White instructor avoided her when she dressed in a way often perceived by middle class teachers as “ghetto.” When she changed her clothing and hair style, he told her, “Now you actually look presentable. I bet you are making better grades too.” Similarly, in a research project I conducted, a female high school student concluded that her math teacher “didn’t like” her after the teacher emailed her mother that her skirts were “too short.” Adolescents use clothing to express themselves and their culture as a part of the identity work they engage in. Avoiding or rejecting them because of these forms of self-expression can further estrange them from the classroom or school. If concerns need to be raised, they should be done in a way that respects students’ self-expression.

Finally, teachers may alienate students by correcting the inconsequential. Although our job is to help students become educated people, when we correct the inconsequential, we may work against other goals of engagement and inclusion. Deciding what is inconsequential is, of course, a judgment call: context is everything. For instance, our standards for speech and language differ when students try to explain an idea they are in the midst of grappling with versus when they are preparing for a job interview. In the former situation, correct grammar is not the point, while in the second, it may matter a lot. If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.

The Best of the #MTBoS is Here!

Well, Tina and I didn’t plan it this way, but the publishing gods have given our little project a Pi Day release! We told you about it here, and now you can get your own copy for a good cause. 

Last year at Twitter Math Camp (TMC), participants were asked whether they paid their own way. Here was the show of hands:

  
(📷: @_levi_)

We know that there are some fantastic math teachers out there for whom the cost of TMC is prohibitive. We would love to have you join the fun and learning!

So please purchase a copy, give them as gifts to your colleagues, and re-tweet, re-post, and share!

Online preview (intro, table of contents with titles only, index, glossary):

https://mtbos2015.pressbooks.com

Direct purchase (more of the money goes to the scholarship if you buy from here):

https://www.createspace.com/6027355

Amazon Paperback:
http://www.amazon.com/Best-Math-Teacher-Blogs-2015/dp/1530388902/

Amazon Kindle:
http://www.amazon.com/Best-Math-Teacher-Blogs-2015/dp/1530388902/

Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.

The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2015

It’s never been easier to miss a great math blog post. The MathTwitterBlogoSphere –– known as #MTBoS around social media –– was once a small group of math teachers willing to make themselves vulnerable, putting their practice online. As the community has expanded, even the most dedicated readers struggle to keep up with the deluge of thoughtful commentary, engaging and interesting tasks, and stories that we can all learn from.

To help keep you from missing out, we have compiled some favorite posts from this past year, as nominated by #MTBoS folks on Twitter, into a book. These posts are as rich and varied as the educators who wrote them. Some delve into specific content. Some tell stories of change and growth. Others explore teaching practices, new or well established. We hope that you find some that provoke and push you, and others that make you smile. Most of all, we hope you make some new connections in the MTBoS community.

This book has another purpose as well. Since 2012, folks from the MTBoS have participated in an annual “tweet up,” a two-day math extravaganza called Twitter Math Camp (TMC). Unlike regular conferences, teachers come knowing who they want to meet. They come to continue conversations that have been taking place online, through blogs and twitter. TMC is a rich and personal learning environment. The grassroots nature of TMC means it is lively, personal, tailor-made, and unpredictable. However, most teachers have to pay their own way. We will use the money raised through sales of this book to start a fund to bring along some of the teachers who would not otherwise be able to participate. We think that TMC is a unique professional learning experience, and we hope to share it while we grow our community.

The book is nearly ready for publication, but we need assistance with a few tasks (we’d like to add an index and list embedded links at the bottom of each post so they’re accessible to anyone reading a paper copy). If you’re interested in assisting please email Tina (tina.cardone1 on gmail) and she’ll get you set up with a task.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your support.

— Lani Horn & Tina Cardone
P.S. Sorry that we were super secret on this project! We didn’t decide to do this until after the #MTBoS2015 conversation started. We were so impressed by the quality of the nominated posts, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something for this amazing community. As long as we are confessing, we also didn’t announce it until now because we weren’t sure we’d be able to finish it! If people like the idea then we’ll have a more public and organized process for 2016.

Laying the Groundwork for Logarithms

s

Strangely, I have had occasion to do a few tutoring sessions with different kids recently around exponential and logarithmic functions.

This particular mistake set off a few alarm bells:

logblog

 

Do you see what the student is doing here? She is treating

log a

like a variable that is being divided instead of a function.

I looked at the student’s notes, and all the usual log laws were there. But she did not yet have the unshakable understanding that logs are functions. I realized that there are some foundational ideas that she needed before we could really make sense of all of this.

Here are a couple of essential ideas I want to communicate to students about logarithm functions.

First, functions can be described as actions, so I always make students explain what a function is doing.

The question you should ask about every function is: what are we doing to the input to get to the output? I call it “saying the function in English.”

Since we usually teach logarithms after exponential functions, let me start with them.

I ask, What do exponential functions do? They provide rules based on repeated multiplication. So the function

2x

tells us that “some number (y) equals 2 multiplied by itself any number of (x)  times” to get y. We can do this with different examples, talk about how the function grows, look at the graph, look at tables, compare the growth of exponential functions to linear and quadratic ones. My goal is to get kids to have a feel for what is happening with exponential growth so well that when somebody says, “It was growing exponentially!” they can decide whether that is an accurate statement or not.

This is the first part of the groundwork for understanding logarithms.

Second, remember that anything we do in mathematics, we always find ways to undo.

This is thematic in all of mathematics. It becomes a chant when I teach math.
I say to students:
“Since this is math, anything we learn to do, we need to ….?”
They soon learn to respond with:
UNDO!!!”

Doing-and-undoing is a good mathematical habit of mind to emphasize, because students start to anticipate that when we learn some new funky function or operation, an inverse is coming down the pike. They are not at all surprised to learn that trig functions have an inverse and so on.

In this case, since we have learned to exponentiate, they can guess we need to un-exponentiate.

shrug

That’s just how math works!

I like to show inverses of functions in all of the representations. The idea is the same in tables, graphs and equations: the x’s and y’s switch places.

For tables and graphs, it’s fairly easy for students to figure it out. But the algebra gets tricky. To find the inverse of the previous exponential, for example, we need to derive it from:

inverse 1

This immediately creates a mathematical need to “un-exponentiate.”

So when we want to solve that equation for y, let’s undo exponentiation with a function we call a logarithm. Logarithms undo exponentiation.

logging the inverse
Since the log undoes the exponentiation, we end up isolating the y.

this one!

I also tell them we read this as “log base two of x equals y.”

So when you see an equation like:

fixed

you are asking “2 to what power equals 8?” I have them practice explaining what different equations mean.

Now your students are ready to learn all the details of working with logs!

Tell me your ideas in the comments.

[Before I close, vaguely related Arrested Development reference:

bob loblaw

Because this is a log law blog. But I guess I don’t really want to talk about log laws. Anyways…]

Building Teaching as a Responsive Profession

Those of you who spend real or virtual time with me have heard me talk about how hard it is to talk about teaching.

One frequently mentioned issue is that, unlike other professions, teaching does not have its own technical language. Professions like aviation and medicine have common professional terms that highlight important features of critical situations and guide practice. In aviation, for instance, pilots identify wind patterns to aid in landing planes. Likewise, surgeons have cataloged human anatomy and surgical procedures so the protocol for appendectomies can be named and routinized, with appropriate modifications for anatomical variations such as hemophilia or obesity. But a strong headwind in China is similar to a strong headwind in Denmark; a hemophiliac in Brazil will require more or less the same modifications as a hemophiliac in Egypt.

In contrast, an urban school may not be the same as an urban school a few blocks away, nor an ADHD kid the same as an ADHD kid in the same classroom. Although such terms attempt to invite descriptions about particular teaching situations, the language often relies on stereotyped understandings. Everyday categories like an urban school, an honors class, or an ADHD kid seldom work to describe teaching situations adequately to help teachers address the challenges they face. Words characterizing social spaces and human traits are inherently ambiguous and situated in particular social, cultural and historical arrangements.

The variation teachers encounter cannot always be codified, as they often are in aviation and surgery. In fact, in the United States, when educational situations are codified, they often presume the “neutral” of White, English-speaking, and middle class culture. However, the widespread practice of glossing cultural particulars, or only seeing them as deviants from a norm, reduces teachers’ ability to teach well. From Shirley Brice Heath’s  seminal work comparing home literacy practices in White and African American communities to Annette Lareau’s identification of social class-specific parenting patterns, we see time and again that children from non-dominant groups frequently encounter schooling expectations that are incongruous with their home cultures, often to the detriment of their learning. Conversely, when instructional practices align with children’s home cultures, teachers more are more effective at cultivating students’ learning. (See, for a few well documented examples, this work by Kathryn Au and Alice Kawakami, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Teresa McCarty.)

Culturally responsive pedagogies are, by definition, highly particular and have been documented to yield better student learning. To communicate sufficiently, professional language for teaching would need to encompass this complexity, avoiding simplistic –– perhaps common sense –– stereotypes about children, classrooms, schools, or communities.

How, then, can we develop shared professional language for teaching and build professionals responsive to the children they serve? I have some ideas I will share in another post.

Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at The Willows School

I am honored to be presenting tomorrow at the Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at the Willows School in Culver City, CA.

My workshop is on Playing with Mathematical Ideas: Strategies for Building a Positive Classroom Climate. Students often enter math class with fear and trepidation. Yet we know that effective teaching engages their ideas. How do we lower the social risk of getting students to share to help them understand mathematics more deeply? I will share what I have learned from accomplished mathematics teachers who regularly succeed at getting students to play with mathematical ideas as a way of making sense.

In my workshop, I will develop the concepts of status and smartness, as well as share an example of “playful problem solving.” Here is the Tony De Rose video we watched, with the question: How is Tony De Rose mathematically smart? If he were a 7th grader in your classroom, what chances would he have to show it?

Usually teachers like  resources, so I have compiled some here.

Books

Bellos, A. & Harriss, E. (2015). Snowflake, Seashell, Star: Colouring Adventures in Wonderland. Canongate Books Ltd; Main edition

Childcraft Encyclopedia (1987). Mathemagic. World Book Incorporated.

Jacobs, H. (1982). Mathematics: A Human Endeavor. W.H. Freeman & Co Publishers.

Pappas, T. (1993). The Joy of Mathematics (2nd Edition). World Wide Publishing.

Van Hattum, S. (2015). Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. Natural Math

Weltman, A. (2015). This is Not a Maths Book: A Smart Art Activity Book. Ivy Press.

Blogs that Feature Playful Mathematics

Math in Your Feet Blog

Talking Math With Your Kids

Visual Patterns

Math Munch

Some Inspiring Ignite* Talks that Give Ideas about Teaching Playfully

*Ignite talks are 5 minute long presentation with 20 slides and with the slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. It’s the presentation equivalent of a haiku or sonnet.

Peg Cagle, What Architecture Taught Me About Teaching

Justin Lanier, The Space Around the Bar

Jasmine Ma, Mathematics on the Move: Re-Placing Bodies in Mathematics

Max Ray, Look Mom! I’m a Mathematician

There are tons more. The Math Forum does a great job of getting outstanding math educators to share their work in this series of talks.

Please feel free to add other good resources in the comments section!

 

Faking Excellence: The Art of Milking Mediocrity for all its Worth

(Note: This is a guest post by my high schooler, an excellent student. It came out of a chat with some of her high-achieving friends.)

An Informative Guide

Part I: In the classroom

In order to uphold the image of “dedicated student” in the eyes of one’s educators, it is important to maintain a certain level of pseudoattentive behavior. Always have a notebook and a writing utensil out on your desk. Try to sit towards the front of the classroom, and make eye contact when teachers are lecturing. Take notes. Ask questions when you have them. (This practice both elevates the teacher’s opinion of you and helps to further the image of you as caring.) Greet your teacher upon entrance to the classroom. Converse with him or her on the finer points of their subject that you have diligently researched (see below). Bid them farewell upon your leave. Have books and supplies with you at all times. Participate in classroom activities. Make yourself feel actively present, and your teacher will take note.

Part II: Active Procrastination

In a survey of 2 high school students, both agreed that most to all of their homework is “boring.” As a result, we can conclude that one’s homework may not always come first in their lives. So if you don’t want to do it, does that mean you should binge watch Parks and Rec on the floor of your bedroom in shame? No! Procrastinate actively. Use homework time to expand your mind in more interesting ways. Read articles that are somewhat vaguely related to classroom materials (see above). Talk to your friends about how much you would prefer to do nearly anything but said assignment. Live the life of an overworked student while only spending a fraction of your time acting like one.

Part III: Completing Work

Close your eyes. Take yourself back to the last time you put off an assignment until 11:30pm the night before it was due. Get a good, long look at this mental image of last night, and open your eyes. Sure, you know how to put off work. But do you know how to cram it? The first lesson to be learned when attempting to do three weeks of work in one night is that you never outright admit this weakness. When dating the paper, always think back to when it was originally assigned. Then, count forward to the due date. Take one third of that number. Count that many days ahead from the original assignment date. There you have it: a believable but still respectable starting date. Exceptions may apply, but this is a good rule of thumb until you are a more seasoned procrastinator. The next lesson to be learned is the art of rephrasing. Many, many teachers steal each other’s work sheets. It is in their nature. So many, many foolish students at schools without honor codes (or with flagrant disregards to them) post the exact wording of these questions onto Yahoo Answers. And many, many Good Samaritans spend their time answering these questions. Learn to rephrase the work of these kind souls and make it sound like your own. Chop up sentences. Rearrange. Use synonyms. Expand on ideas. Cut down ideas. The Best Answer on Yahoo Answers is your marble, and you are Michelangelo. Now get on it, before you switch into complete sleep deprivation mode.

Part IV: Emulating Those More Well Rested than Yourself

The ideal model of a student is one who is not only well educated, but bright eyed and bushy tailed each and every morning. Now, on days when your eyes are more shadowed than bright and your tail is a deflated balloon, what is there to do? Worry not. The first step is hydration. Cold, cold water can jerk anyone out of dreamland, as can some nice old fashioned caffeine. Another tip is to remember the saying “dress for the sleep you wished for, not the sleep you got.” Wear clothes that make you look alive. Dead zombie clothes will turn you into a dead zombie. It’s science. Smile at things so that you do not appear to be a sleepy lump. And heaven forbid you fall asleep in class.

Part V: Eloquent BS

When completing various forms of free response questions, it is important to master the art of key term dropping. Sometimes, a question or prompt will only evoke a 404. message from your brain, and in that moment, do not be afraid. Recall the overall subject matter being assessed. Bring to mind the key terms of the section (often found alongside textbook passages) and think about whether you have any recollection whatsoever of how to use them. If so, you’re in luck! Teachers do not always read all 120 essays they have to grade, (and so especially for a class that isn’t a language class) they sometimes just skim to make sure that you have captured the general essence of the subject matter. Term dropping will not hurt, especially if you can bulk it up with any other somewhat related content. The author has personal experience of herself and very close friends getting 100s on answers for simply using the phrases “Christian-based society,” “complex gender issues,” “King John,” and “high death rates” in a paragraph with hardly any other coherence. Miracles do happen, but sometimes you have to help them along.

Part VI: Tying it All Together

In our short time together, you have learned how to become a more deceptively talented student. This skill, however, can only take you so far. Without a deep commitment to maintaining your facade of greatness, it will collapse like the Berlin Wall in 1989 and your lies will become obvious. Treat your mediocrity like a channel for something greater. Believe.

 

Teachers’ Work Conditions

Today I was feeling chatty on twitter, so I wished everybody a good morning. It’s nice to hear about what is going on with folks, so it’s a pleasant way to start a day. I got several responses from people I was happy to hear from.

One exchange in particular got me thinking. At an early hour, where I still had one last child to bring to school, Tina Cardone had already attended an intense IEP meeting and faced off with complaining students.

In just a few tweets, Tina reminded me of some challenges of teaching, ones that are beyond the reach of teacher preparation or most education reforms: teachers’ work conditions. Most of the public debate about the profession skips the work conditions part (although there certainly are many discussions of teacher compensation).

An IEP meeting is usually an add-on to a teachers’ day. Teachers need to attend, both because they are legally beholden to IEPs but also to provide a team feedback on student. However, this time is not typically compensated. The teacher comes early, gives up a preparation period, or stays after school to attend an IEP meeitng.

Aggrieved students can be an emotional drain, as a teacher can find herself defending her professional judgement about something  — a grade, an assignment, a grouping arrangement — to a group of young people who may not see the big picture of her work.

Finally, Tina threw in the bit about her “lunch” time being scheduled for 10:30 AM. It brought me back to my last teaching job, when I was pregnant and hungry at odd times throughout the day. I have talked to other pregnant teachers who commiserate about that physical struggle. The half hour teachers typically get for lunch is seldom enough to eat properly in the best of circumstances. Throw in an early time slot or a physical condition that requires extra nourishment, it becomes difficult to keep the energy and mood up.

I am not singling Tina out here. To be sure, Tina knows how to hit the re-set button better than most folks. She is a frequent tweeter on the #onegoodthing hashtag (some of her #MTBoS pals even have a blog dedicated to this). Even in telling me about what was going on, she took these conditions as a part of the deal, focusing on what she could do: take her preparation time to get her emotions together (“re-centering”) so she can be in a good space for the rest of her classes.

When I think about conversations about teacher turnover, I notice how little we attend to these very basic conditions. Even when talk about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for students, we too often skip the part about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for teachers. We pay attention to school climate for kids so they can do their best work. What would happen if we did the same for teachers?

Here is one idea that could alleviate some of the time intensity of teachers’ work: What if schools staffed one or two adults as permanent in-house substitutes, whose primary job it is to know the students, teachers, and classrooms, so they can step in seamlessly when somebody needs a moment for re-centering after a difficult meeting, to compensate teachers’ time taken for additional meetings, or to allow a pregnant teacher to step out and use the bathroom during class?

In the years since NCLB, I have seen schools find funding for “data managers” so they can generate the tables and spreadsheets needed for evidence-based practice. Why not support teachers in bringing their best selves to each class by giving them an additional resource through by funding the floating support person?

What other ideas do you have for improving teachers’ work conditions?

The Moral Qualities of Teaching

A few years ago, my colleague Rogers Hall and I looked at how biostatisticians and epidemiologists’ workplace conversations compared with those of instructional coaches and teachers. (We both study how people learn at work.)

As we compared our methods for analyzing workplace learning, we had a few great a-ha! moments. Rogers focuses a lot on epistemic communities in his analysis — that is, how different professions collectively agree about what qualifies as knowledge. The architects, etymologists and epidemiologists he has studied all have different standards for saying that something is “known.” Sharing analytic methods benefited me: the idea of epistemic community helped me describe how different teachers take different tacks on what counts as knowing in teaching.

My work informed his in a different way. In my studies, I examine how teachers justify instructional decisions. Oftentimes, they provide affective reasons for what they do  (“I am skipping this lesson because I don’t like it.” “I am going to do this activity because the kids love it.”)  Sometimes, they ground their choices in technical knowledge (“We need to give kids more time on subtracting integers. Those are hard ideas, and they need to see them lots of different examples.”) In addition, teachers will invoke moral reasons (“I am doing re-takes because every kid needs a chance to learn this. I don’t care who your 8th grade teacher was, you are going to learn in my class.”)

Through the comparison, Rogers saw that morality played in epidemiologists’ decisions too. For instance, in one observation, a scientist and a biostatistician debated how to sample a population to look for relationships between HIV and HPV –– whether to do fewer numbers of a better HPV screening or to get more statistical power by using a less expensive HPV test. If quality data were the only consideration, the need for statistical power would prevail. However, the epidemiologist had a had a strong moral commitment to improving the lives of poor women being recruited in the study and wanted to make sure they got the best screening available. This consideration played into his research design. Even supposedly “objective” scientists have reasons to weigh moral and ethical issues in their research.

Why do I bring up the role of morality in teaching? At the moment, I have intellectual and personal reasons.

Intellectually, I need to push back on how the cognitive revolution impacts how we think about teacher knowledge. Lee Shulman had a critical insight: good teachers have a special kind of content knowledge — what he called “pedagogical content knowledge”:

Pedagogical content knowledge (or PCK) includes: (a) knowledge of how to structure and represent academic content for direct teaching to students; (b) knowledge of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that students encounter when learning particular content; and (c) knowledge of the specific teaching strategies that can be used to address students’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances.

By acknowledging the specialized kinds of understanding that good teaching demands, Shulman did his part to elevate the teaching profession, opening entire programs of research that specify different facets of PCK.

Yet, somewhere in the years that followed, the moral element of teaching has too often been devalued. In our quest to professionalize teaching by defining its specialized knowledge, we have downplayed that teaching, at its best, is a deeply moral act.

For example, the PCK construct says nothing of what Rochelle Gutierréz calls “the political knowledge” teachers need to have truly equitable and inclusive classrooms. For instance, teachers need to understand the often biased structures of schooling and work deliberately against them. Recognizing bias and working against it is inherently moral: it acknowledges the inequities built into schooling, from unequal resources to cultural bias to curricular marginalization.

On the personal level, I have a child who has struggled in school. This child’s school experience has vastly improved when teachers are morally invested, sometimes beyond what would be sensible. I am fortunate because this year, my child’s teacher deeply understands the nature of these struggles.

When we first met, we discussed the history and nature of what has gone on. She shared that she had a child with similar challenges. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “So when I say I get your child” –– she tapped her hand to her heart –– “I get your child.

Since then, she has told me that she finds my kid an “interesting challenge” and a “delight.” I have heard her talk to other parents as well and can attest that this teacher has a strong commitment to find a way to connect with and reach every student in her classroom.

Calling her commitment a form of knowledge does not do justice to the deep place it comes from: from her heart, from her very purpose as a teacher. And I know that has made all the difference.